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A Brief Jewish History of Le Marche Through the 1700s

The Le Marche region of Italy stretches along the Adriatic coast. It borders Emilia-Romagna and the Kingdom of San Marino to the north, Tuscany to the northwest, Umbria to the west, and Abruzzo and Lazio to the south. Noted cities along the coast include Recanati, Ancona, Senigallia, Fano, and Pesaro, and inland, Macerata, Camerino, Fabriano, Fermo, and Urbino.

Early History

Jews have been living in the Le Marche region for more than one thousand years and at least thirty Jewish communities can be documented in the region. Land records show Jews as owners of vineyards and olive trees as early as 967. The city of Senigallia attracted a sizable Jewish community by the 1300s due to its port and lucrative business opportunities. The Jewish presence in the city of Urbino dates back to the same period. A scholar known as Master Daniel arrived in Urbino from Viterbo in the 1300s to trade and open a bank. The city of Recanati, located between Ancona and Senigallia, was known as a seat of learning by at least the 1200s. Other cities include the sea port of Pesaro, and Fermo, a city mentioned by the great poet, Immanuel of Rome who found hospitality there in the house of a wealthy merchant. His great work, the "Mahbarot" was extensively edited in Fermo.

After the expulsion of the Jews from the Spanish dominions in 1492 and Portugal in 1497, waves of Jewish refugees began to arrive, settling in Ancona and the other port cities. In addition, Jews from Sicily and the south of Italy who had formerly lived in the Kingdom of Naples also began to arrive. Pope Paul III had invited merchants from the Levant to settle in Ancona regardless of their religion by the 1540s. He encouraged the settlement of Jews and crypto-Jews promising protection against the Inquisition. Approximately 100 Portuguese crypto-Jewish families settled in Ancona at this time. Since trade was the life blood of the Adriatic port cities, certain modifications enabling the Jews to continue to trade with Turkey and the Levant were introduced in order to avert a commercial crisis. The two communities of Italian Jews were those who followed the ancient Italian rite and those following the Levantine or Sephardic rite. There was a richly decorated Levantine synagogue in addition to the ancient place of worship according to the Italian rite.

In 1555, the situation for the Jews living in Le Marche changed. Pope Paul IV began to institute anti-Jewish measures in the Papal States. In Ancona, the Jews were forced to live in a ghetto, prohibited from owning real property, and restricted to trading in secondhand clothing. Some Jewish families managed to escape north to Senigallia, Pesaro and Ferrara. However, in Ancona, twenty-five crypto-Jews were burned at the stake in 1555. These events moved Dona Gracia Nasi, a rich, Jewish merchant woman, to organize a boycott of the port of Ancona. This represented the first attempt by Jews to utilize economic power as a weapon against persecutors. In 1569, when Pope Pius V expelled the Jews from the Papal States, Ancona and Rome were the only cities in which they where permitted to reside, due to their usefulness in the Levant trade.

Senigallia passed under Papal rule in 1631. At that time, the Jewish community consisted of about 40 families comprising a few hundred people. During the course of the following century and a half, the number increased to approximately 120 families. The community's public spirit and charity were demonstrated in 1649 when a large sum was collected to ransom Polish Jews who had been sold into slavery during the Cossack Wars.

Pesaro's Jewish community is one of the oldest in Le Marche. It contained a synagogue according to Hispano-Levantine rite as well as a separate synagogue of exceptional beauty following the native Italian rite. However, once Pesaro came under Papal rule in 1632, the Jewish community rapidly declined until by 1901 fewer than 100 people remained. The same situation occurred in Urbino. Between 1600 and the mid-1700s the number of Jewish families in Urbino was reduced by half.

Italian mysticism, adopted from the school in Safed in Palestine, exemplified by Isaac Luria and his pupil, Hayyim Vital Calabrese, flourished in Italy. Mystical study circles spread throughout Italy. The Safed tradition was maintained to a great extent by Italian rabbis such as Aaron Berachiah da Modena, Moses Zacuto of Mantua, Benjamin Cohen Vitale of Reggio, and Menahem Azariah da Fano.